Book Review: The Courier – Kjell Ola Dahl

About The Book

In 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In a great haste, she escapes to Sweden, saving herself. Her family in Oslo, however, is deported to Auschwitz. In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, who helped Ester get to Sweden. Their burgeoning relationship ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire.

And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…

Written with Dahl’s trademark characterization and elegant plotting, The Courier sees the hugely respected godfather of Nordic Noir at his best, as he takes on one of the most horrific periods of modern history, in a exceptional, shocking thriller.

My Review

A few things I like in a book:

  • Great writing
  • An intriguing plot
  • A mystery (or three)
  • Multiple timelines
  • Lots of political and social history
  • Strong characterisation

If I read a book that contains two or three of the above I consider it a win, if I read a book that hits every single item on my wishlist I feel like I’ve won the lottery. The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl is a winning ticket. Set in the present day, the 1960s and during World War 2 The Courier examines life in Norway during the war and its far reaching impact.

In 1942, Ester, a young Jewish woman, working for the resistance in Oslo flees to Sweden after her cover is blown and she ends up on the radar of the Gestapo. She has left her family and friends behind and is tortured by thoughts of how safe they are in a country increasingly in the grip of a fascist regime. Her childhood friend, Åse and her husband Gerhard are also entrenched in the resistance but when Ester discovers that Åse is dead and Gerhard is suspected of her murder she is blindsided. Their daughter, Turid is still in Norway and when Gerhard dies in a fire she is adopted by a couple from Oslo. Except Gerhard reappears in Oslo in 1967 and he wants to see his daughter. Where has he been, who really died in the fire and is everything as it seems?

I love a book set during WW2 and in particular love to read about this period of history in countries other than my own. I am ashamed to say that I had little idea that Norway was so heavily impacted during the war and that Jews had their property taken from them (Ester’s father’s shop has a sign in the window declaring, ‘Closed (Jew)’) and subsequently sent to concentration camps. Kjell Ola Dahl writes some heartbreaking passages which convey the fear and frustration that Ester and her family feel. Her family home is ransacked and their possessions taken and it is all the more shocking due to the sparse use of language used to describe this betrayal.

The drawers have been smashed. There are white splinters around the locks. Her foot slips on a piece of paper. The noise makes her freeze. She is still for a few seconds. Curiosity drives her on.

Each sentence is like a gunshot. The gaps and the spaces left by the things unsaid let my imagination run wild and I felt the horror and disbelief for myself.

This tension runs throughout the novel like a river. It is an undercurrent which taints every sentence and character and I didn’t know quite who to trust. This is a brilliant thriller wrapped up in a piece of exquisite historical fiction with meticulous plotting and great characterisation. I loved the multiple timelines which allowed the mysteries (and boy are there a few!) to develop. The intervening years have made long held resentments and secrets fester and for Ester, Gerhard’s reappearance is shocking and visceral. She needs to know what happened the night he was supposed to have died in a fire and the death of Åse still weighs on her mind leading to a brilliant cat and mouse chase between the two of them. Or is it three of them? Because somebody else is also investigating Gerhard and the past may not stay buried.

With great characters like Gerhard, a man who is a principled loving father and husband but with a dark streak a mile wide and Ester a brave, fearless, strong woman this book becomes a study of human nature and what we will do in extraordinary circumstances. Kjell Ola Dahl writes women so well, they are not just ‘the wife’, or ‘the mother’ or ‘the pretty dead girl’ and the plot of The Courier is driven by women. It is women who hide Ester from the Gestapo, women who carry messages for the resistance and a woman who is unafraid to go against powerful and menacing men to right wrongs. I loved the people in this book, but most of all I loved Ester and her strength.

If brilliantly plotted novels with strong female leads and a stack of social and political history is your thing then The Courier could be for you. Wonderfully translated by Don Bartlett it is Nordic Noir at its best.

My hugest thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for a copy of The Courier and satisfying my Nordic Noir itch. The Courier is out in ebook today and will be published in paperback on 21st March 2019.

About The Author

Kjell Ola Dahl, author of The Courier

Kjell Ola Dahl

One of the godfathers of the Nordic Noir genre, Kjell Ola Dahl was born in 1958 in Gjøvik. He made his debut in 1993, and has since published eleven novels, the most prominent of which is a series of police procedurals cum psychological thrillers featuring investigators Gunnarstranda and Frølich. In 2000 he won the Riverton Prize for The Last Fix and he won both the prestigious Brage and Riverton Prizes for The Courier in 2015. His work has been published in 14 countries and sold over two million copies. He lives in Oslo.

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